Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Smile please

Smile please

Chinese standardization

As I reached the boarding gate at the Beijing airport, the lady from the airline took my boarding card, momentarily glanced at it and passed it to a colleague standing next to her. Her colleague in turn put it under the scanner, and passed it to the third colleague. The third colleague decorated the card with an artful squiggle with her pen and waved me on, as a disembodied recorded voice expressed the airline’s gratitude at my patronage by saying “xie xie”. Further down near the aircraft, another airline staff member tore the boarding pass into two, passed it to the security man, who planted another squiggle on it and I entered the aircraft.

The Chinese service model seems to be based on the principles of assembly line of the manufacturing process in which the Chinese clearly excel. The service is divided neatly into different processes and a standardized delivery of a basic quality is designed to be made for each element. Standardization rather than customization is the goal. “If you have to thank every customer, why not have a recording to spew it out than leave it to the whim of fickle humans,” the Chinese think. The taxis in Shanghai belt out both a welcome and a farewell message, both in Chinese and amusing English ( including reminding you "not to forget any belongings you take"). Does the recorded message achieve the service provider’s intention of making the customer feel valued or does it actually devalue them and makes them feel like cattle? In my view the Chinese airline process of handling the passenger and his bags seem to be quite similar – perhaps they do not play the “thank you” recording to the bags, and not physically shove the passenger on to the aircraft (thought he Shanghai Metro has hired people who stand at the platforms at peak times and do push the passengers on to the trains).

Customised Indian model

The Indian service model, on the other hand, is based on the concept of customised service. Several factors will influence the behavior of the staff at the counter - which may include how her mother-in-law treated her in the morning, whether she got a seat on the bus to the airport and even the quality of the tea that she had in the canteen. If you are lucky, you will be greeted with a beaming smile, solicitous attitude, and made to feel like a king. On a bad day (her bad day, which soon becomes your bad day too) you may be scowled at and blamed for interrupting her well deserved rest.

But most of all, her behavior and attitude will be based on what she feels the particular customer deserves. Coming from deep notions of a class based society, the behavior will often depend upon at what level or class of society does the person behind the counter pegs you at. Hence, if you are neatly dressed, exude an air of confidence and sophistication, you may be greeted with a smile. On the other hand if you present a bedraggled appearance and are classified as ordinary riff-raff you may be treated with perfunctory callousness. Indian model could do with a bit of standardization - though perhaps not a talking machine.

The Japanese way

The Japanese are of course, known for their high standards of manufacturing (Toyota recalls not withstanding) as well as service. The Japanese service combines the Chinese standardization, with an Indian customization and intimacy, without the class discrimination. While the service is still performed by humans, machines are used to monitor the level of the delivery. Computers and cameras check the level of curvature of the smiles of the service staff at the Keihin Electric Express Railway Company, to check if the smile is wide enough to infuse the customer with the required feeling of warmth.

Some may feel that the installation of smile scanners is a step too far. Nevertheless, both the Indian and the Chinese service models need to learn a great deal from the Japanese and I would strongly recommend that the Japanese smile scanners be installed at all airline counters in both India and China. But I fear that the Chinese solution may be to replace the current voice tape recording with a video recording, showing the smile of a machine monitored Japanese employee! And the Indian solution? May be the staff will only switch on the scanner when they do feel like smiling.

Written by Ashok Sethi